Extreme Hunger: Causes and How to Cope

This blog article is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical advice.

Have you ever experienced extreme hunger that feels almost unbearable? If so, you’re not alone. 

Extreme hunger can show up in many ways, from intense cravings to physical discomfort and even pain. It can make it difficult to focus on daily tasks, disrupt sleep, and impact overall health and well-being.

But what causes extreme hunger, and how can it be managed? 

In this article, we’ll explore the underlying reasons behind feelings of hunger. I’ll share strategies for getting to the bottom of why you feel so hungry. And you’ll learn six practical tips to squash extreme hunger for good.

Ready for more?

What causes extreme hunger?

Extreme hunger, also called polyphagia, can be caused by nutritional, medical or lifestyle reasons which may include:

  • Dieting or weight loss
  • Medical reasons
  • Inadequate or poor sleep
  • Stress
  • Food access
  • Eating Disorders

Let’s dive into each one of these causes individually.

Dieting and weight loss

If you cut calories, food groups or macros, hunger is likely to follow. 

Consistently getting less (calories, variety, macros) than your body needs can cause extreme hunger due to hormonal changes, metabolic changes and psychological changes. Let’s take a look at each of these more closely.

Hormonal changes

If you are cutting calories or macros to lose weight, your brain will turn on a number of  hormones to increase hunger. This is a survival mechanism – your brain focuses on helping you prioritize finding food if it senses there’s a famine. The brain cannot tell the difference between dieting and a famine. 

Signs of physical hunger include:

  • A gnawing in your stomach
  • Thoughts of food
  • Losing focus or concentration
  • Feeling tired, lacking energy
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Headaches
  • Lightheadedness 
  • Stomach pain
  • Feeling “hangry” or irritable

Hormonal changes take place when you undershoot your energy intake or aim for a caloric deficit. For example, reducing intake can lower levels of leptin, the hormone that signals fullness. Also, the body produces more ghrelin, the hormone that signals hunger. Both contribute to increased hunger that can feel extreme.

Metabolic changes

When you cut calories, your body will likely respond by slowing down your resting metabolic rate (a.k.a. RMR: the energy you burn just to stay alive). For example,“The Biggest Loser” contestants burned up to 700 calories less per day six years after the show was over.

Not only is the body burning fewer calories, this change in metabolism can increase hunger and appetite.

Psychological changes

The third reason dieting can increase hunger is psychological. Dieting itself can cause stress and anxiety about food choices, feelings of deprivation, and a constant focus on food. The brain responds to deprivation and stress with hunger signals.

Medical reasons for extreme hunger 

There are several medical conditions that can cause extreme hunger:

Diabetes: Uncontrolled diabetes, particularly type 1 diabetes, can cause swings in blood sugar. When blood sugar levels drop, the body releases certain hormones. These signal the body to release stored glucose which the body can use for energy.

This can help to raise blood sugar levels. However, it also increases feelings of intense hunger, particularly if blood sugar levels become too low.

In addition, low blood sugar can impact our brain chemicals, such as dopamine and serotonin. Both play a role in regulating mood, energy levels, and hunger. 

When these brain chemicals are disrupted, it can cause irritability, fatigue, and intense cravings for carbs or sugary foods.

Hypothyroidism: When your thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone, your body may burn fewer calories due to changes in metabolism. This may lead to feelings of fatigue, weight gain, and intense hunger.

Depression: Depression and other mental health conditions can cause changes in appetite and hunger levels. Cravings for high-calorie, sugary, or fatty foods can be common if depression is present.

Prader-Willi Syndrome: Prader-Willi syndrome is a rare genetic condition. It causes constant feelings of hunger and leads to excessive food intake and weight gain.

Dementia: Certain forms of dementia can cause changes in appetite and lead to excessive hunger, eating and weight gain.

Premenstrual syndrome: Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a condition that affects many women in the days leading up to their menstrual period. Along with a range of other symptoms, some women experience extreme hunger during this time. Fluctuating hormone and serotonin levels can cause increased appetite and cravings.

In all of these cases, working with your primary care provider or specialist is needed to diagnose and treat these conditions.

Sleep and extreme hunger

Sleep plays a significant role in regulating hunger and appetite. The hormones that regulate hunger and fullness are impacted by the amount and quality of sleep that you get.

When you don’t get enough sleep, your body produces less leptin, which signals fullness, and more ghrelin, which signals hunger. This hormonal imbalance can increase feelings of hunger and cause you to eat more, particularly high-calorie, sugary, or fatty foods.

In addition, lack of sleep can also disrupt how your body uses glucose. Too little sleep can affect how sensitive your cells are to the hormone insulin, which controls how much glucose gets into your cells for energy. The body may produce more insulin because cells cannot get the energy they need, leading to increased cravings.

Stress 

Stress triggers the release of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These can increase feelings of hunger, particularly for high-calorie, sugary, or fatty foods. My clients frequently call this “stress eating.”

In addition, stress can also disrupt the balance of leptin and ghrelin, leading to increased hunger and cravings.

Access to food

Despite the abundance of food resources in the US, food insecurity and hunger remains a significant issue for millions of Americans. In 2021, an estimated 13.5 million households experienced food insecurity, meaning they lacked reliable access to affordable, nutritious food. 

Food access and resources vary widely depending on location. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides assistance to eligible low-income individuals and families to help them purchase food. There are also a variety of nonprofit organizations and community programs that provide food assistance to those in need, such as food banks and soup kitchens.

Eating disorders and extreme hunger

Someone with an eating disorder may feel extreme hunger for complex reasons. For individuals with anorexia nervosa, extreme hunger may occur as a result of long-term calorie restriction and malnutrition. This can lead to a strong drive to eat, as the body tries to compensate for the lack of nutrients. 

However, individuals with anorexia may also experience psychological barriers to eating, such as fear of weight gain or body dysmorphia, which can make it difficult to satisfy their hunger.

For individuals with bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder, extreme hunger may be a symptom of binge episodes, during which large amounts of food are consumed in a short period of time. 

Following a binge, individuals may experience intense feelings of guilt, shame, or disgust, which can lead to further restriction or purging behaviors. This cycle can contribute to a sense of constant hunger, as the body is not receiving adequate nutrition and is unable to regulate hunger and fullness cues.

Overall, extreme hunger can be a complex symptom of an eating disorder. It is important to seek professional help to address the underlying issues and develop a healthy relationship with food.

Is it normal to have extreme hunger?

It is not considered normal to have extreme hunger on a regular basis. Ongoing hunger can be a sign of one of the medical conditions listed above, stress, poor sleep, an eating disorder or food insecurity. If you are experiencing extreme hunger, it is important to see a healthcare provider to determine the cause and receive treatment.

What happens if I ignore extreme hunger?

Ignoring extreme hunger can have negative consequences on both physical and mental health.

Not consuming enough food to meet your body’s energy needs can lead to malnutrition, weight loss, and decreased energy levels. In severe cases, it can also put a strain on your heart and other vital organs, potentially leading to serious health problems.

Ignoring extreme hunger can also have a negative impact on mental health. When your body is constantly hungry, it can lead to increased stress and anxiety, moodiness, and decreased focus and productivity.

How to stop extreme hunger

In addition to addressing the underlying cause with a medical practitioner, here are several steps to prevent extreme hunger:

  1. Eat regularly without skipping meals: Eating frequent, balanced meals and snacks throughout the day can help prevent extreme hunger from coming on. Balanced meals and snacks include a mix of carbohydrates, protein, fiber and fats. Eating about every 3 to 5 hours is recommended to prevent extreme hunger.
  2. Eat enough: Eating enough at meals and snacks to feel comfortably full can help. If you find yourself hungry an hour or two after a meal or snack, you may not have had enough to eat at the last opportunity.
  3. Include fiber: Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes, digest slowly and help increase satisfaction and satiety, which reduces feelings of hunger.
  4. Prioritize sleep: getting adequate and consistent sleep can help regulate hormones, improve insulin sensitivity and reduce feelings of hunger and cravings. Aiming for 7-9 hours of sleep per night and with a consistent sleep routine can help.
  5. Manage your stress: Finding a variety of ways to manage stress can counteract its effects. Mindfulness, gentle movement, relaxing hobbies, and connecting with loved ones are examples of coping skills that can help manage stress. 
  6. Seek the advice of a healthcare professional: If you are experiencing extreme hunger, it is important to see a healthcare provider to determine the cause and receive treatment.
Balanced meals containing protein, starchy carbs, fruits or veggies and fats will help prevent extreme hunger
Balanced meals and snacks throughout the day can help prevent extreme hunger

Final thoughts

It’s important to remember that hunger levels can vary from person to person. Hunger can be affected by many different factors, including age, sex, weight, physical activity levels, and hormone levels.

To prevent extreme hunger, it’s important to adopt a balanced diet that provides adequate nutrients and energy. A registered dietitian can help you determine if you are getting the nutrition you need.

If you are experiencing persistent feelings of extreme hunger, it is important to talk to a healthcare provider. They can help you determine the underlying cause of your hunger and direct you towards appropriate treatment.